I want to make a difference
Interview with Stefanie Brendl, shark diver, adventurer and conservationist
Every year, over one hundred million sharks are caught and finned alive. Then they are thrown back in the water where they die miserably. Today most of the shark populations worldwide are threatened by extinction.
Especially in China, Hong Kong and Singapore shark-fin soup is regarded as a delicacy and status symbol. Shark protection is a vitally important cause if we wish to maintain a healthy balance in the world's oceans. Thanks to shark diver Stefanie Brendl, the anti shark finning law, passed in Hawaii 2010, has already inspired similar legislation in other US States, as well as Malaysia, Hong Kong, Guam and several other Pacific Island Nations.
We spoke about the attraction of the deep blue, positive thinking and the love for life.
Manuela & Carsten: Can you tell us about what you are doing?
Stefanie Brendl: I started Shark Allies as a non profit organization about three years ago to facilitate research, conservation and education, first and foremost in Hawaii and the Pacific region. The aim and the task of Shark Allies is to find ways to help shark conservation.
M&C: What problems are you facing?
SB: First of all that very few people know about shark finning, and obviously shark finning is the biggest problem we are facing with shark conservation. So with every subject, whether you are talking politics or education or even shark diving, you always have to start at the very bottom. You really have to tell people about sharks, their biology, about what they do and don't do. And you always have to fight that demon idea of sharks as murderers, as blood thirsty killers.
M&C: Tell us about shark finning
SB: Shark finning is a horrendous, cruel and wasteful practice that is squandering a resource. Sharks are caught on hooks. They are then pulled out of the water, their fins are hacked off and the bodies thrown overboard. Alive! The shark then sinks to the bottom and basically suffocates or gets attacked by other animals and eaten. Sharks do not grow back their fins. Finning is a death sentence. Up to a hundred million sharks a year are killed for finning! Think of this number consisting of large sharks, giant animals. That resource is completely wasted. Big fleets are sweeping through an area and take out whole populations of sharks. They often take a whole generation, and if they take out a generation of breeding animals, that group of sharks will not recover for decades. They do not reproduce, like tunas, by the millions, they have a litter of maybe six to ten pups every year and a half. It is an ecological disaster on a huge scale, but people are not aware of it because it is going on underneath the ocean and furthermore, people don’t seem to care all that much.
Shark finning is pursued all over the world where there are sharks, even in the most pristine areas.
M&C: What is it caught for?
SB: Shark finning has the sole purpose of producing fins for shark fin soup, which is not really a food item that creates nutritional sustenance for anybody. Shark fin soup of course is a status symbol, eaten mostly in Asian countries like Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan. Originally it was a feast for royalty only. Now that mainland China and the affluent middle class has grown so much, more people can afford it and suddenly it has become this status symbol that everybody wants to serve. Now in China they believe that you are rude if you have people invited and don't serve shark fin soup. The same counts for weddings. Some traditions have to stop and the Chinese culture can very well exist without shark fin soup. They had the tradition of binding women's feet so that they stayed small and pointy, and they don't do that anymore.
M&C: What would be the solutions to these problems?
SB: One would be education and creating awareness, second would be the media. The media has a huge role in how sharks are perceived by the public, and the general public has a lot of power over conservation decisions and law making. Third would be law making and legislation in itself.
M&C: What is the role of the shark in the ecosystem?
SB: Sharks are incredibly important to us. They are one of the most important animals in the ocean. The top predators in the ocean, just as on land, are crucial for the balance of the ecosystem. Taking out an apex predator is always more critical than taking something from the bottom of the foodchain, where the animals usually replenish their populations more quickly.
Sharks act like the white blood cells of the ocean. They cull the populations, they take out the sick, the diseased and the dead, and there are not a lot of other animals that will do that job. Whales and dolphins do not eat the dead or dying. When you have, for example, a tuna population and you don't take out the ones that have parasites and the ones that are sick, you can actually create disease or epidemic problems. Sharks take out the week and keep the population healthy and only the strongest individuals are able to reproduce.
M&C: Is the shark fin trade a big business?
SB: It is an enormous international business, in profits second only to the drug trade. That explains why it will go on despite regulations. There is a huge incentive to keep going, legal or not.
M&C: Why do you swim with sharks?
SB: I can’t say it is solely because I would like to protect them. For sure, by swimming with them, I've become fascinated with the animals and have developed a deep connection to the ocean. Now I can't help but want to protect it. I feel emotionally and personally involved. To be close to any large wild animal, is one of the highlights of my life. I have also seen that there is a real need for footage and exposure of sharks in a different light. When I can show peaceful interaction with sharks I hope to show people that it can be done, and that it can be very beautiful and peaceful. I want to give people a positive image and then let them make up their own mind about it. We have to show images without gaping jaws and teeth, without blood and guts; no chasing or charging at cages and cameras. All of us that have filmed sharks in the ocean know that those moments of perceived “danger” is usually just one second in a four hour dive where the shark happened to rush at something, often prompted by bait or other human interference. But unfortunately that is the moment that is then shown over and over again.
M&C: Do you feel connected to the sharks?
SB: I think that if you cannot connect to the animals, you shouldn't be swimming with them. If you're going to walk amongst lions, you better be connected and aware of the situation. That's how I feel when I enter the ocean. Sometimes when I am free diving and there are no animals around, I feel just as connected to the space and the open blue. There is always a feeling of life all around. I can hear it, feel it and sense it and when the sharks show up, I am already in that zone, already connected. When I have a day where I feel disconnected, too many thoughts in my head, it is not a good time to be in the ocean. This rarely happens to me, because usually it is instant disconnect from the world above, the moment I get into the water. I get in the water and the world doesn't exist, I become something else, on a different level. Some people call it meditation, a slow and concentrated feeling. I really don't think all that much, it all becomes instinct, feeling, sensing, watching the current, the tide, the sunlight….I don't want to say I become one of them, I just become another creature that enters the ocean.
M&C: With Shark Encounters, your other company, you bring people out to dive with sharks. What do your customers experience?
SB: We wanted to create a possibility for people to come out and see sharks from the safety of a cage, also for people who are non divers. We built a cage and tried it and now we have tours going out every day. It's very simple, the people show up at the harbor for a tour and 15 min later they are in the cage in the middle of the blue, 600 feet of water beneath, floating on the surface and get to look through a window to observe sharks in their own environment. We try to do as much education as we can fit into a tour. We talk, we give the guests facts, show them fossilized sharks teeth and try to get a conservation message across, but we also don't try to cram it down their throats. Some people just need to come and experience it. They need to have time, be in the ocean, see the clouds going by, watch the birds and the rainbows and then step into the deep blue water. They have to process a lot of fear to even get inside the cage, out in the open ocean, and to put their face underwater while holding their breath. The excitement causes them to, be scared, to screem and squeal, and maybe even to throw up, but whatever the response, it is a very deep and emotional experience. They see that the sharks come to the cage and swim by peacefully and in the end everybody says, “I would have gotten out of the cage, I wanted to touch them”. The processing of the full experience continues even after they have left the boat. Kids will tell their parents, take their pictures to school and have the most amazing show and tell ever! For most of the people this is something they thought they would never do. Many write to us later on, saying that it was the most incredible experience they ever had, and from now on they can never look at the ocean or at sharks the same way.
M&C: What was your most special moment with sharks?
SB: I had some very special moments with Tiger-Sharks, and then I had a very special moment with a great white shark. It's very hard to say that one was better than the other, because you can have a moment of extreme excitement, a little bit of fear, and then you have a moment of very peaceful connection. This is what happened to me with the great white shark. I was the last person in the cage and there was only one great white swimming around. It just turned in a certain way and hovered and looked at me. It was a really moving experience, I thought somebody else was looking at me. Those moments make you take on the responsibility. You get out of the cage and say: "I can't turn away from it, this shark just called me out: "You have been privileged to be here and now you go home and start working!"
Tiger-Sharks are one of the most beautiful sharks. I love to film them, interact with them in clear water. They are big enough where you feel that they're actually looking at you as an individual. I was getting very close to big Tiger-Sharks, within touching distance and even touching them. I can still feel in my hands what that skin, the fin, the movement and the muscles felt like. It is embossed in my hands.
M&C: What has to be done to ensure the survival of the sharks?
SB: Of course we have to stop hunting them. We have to stop the products that are made from sharks. But furthermore I think that sharks have an image problem and we do have to change that. I think the media is key to that and a lot of the programming that is out there continues to exploit sharks as “the beasts”. People need to start seeing that sharks ripping things apart is just a brief, yet fascinating moment, just one shot, one behaviour out of the whole day of a shark’s routine. To change that one sided exposure we have to demand better programming.
The other important part of shark conservation is legislation, politics and laws, and the enforcement of laws! We're trying to pass a bill against shark finning within the state of Hawaii. This legislation is one of the simplest ways to solve this problem on a state level. Of course, state level goes out only three miles from shore, what happens in federal and international waters is another thing. But we were hoping that within Hawaii, we could create a space where you cannot have fins, you cannot unload them, transship them, where you cannot have shark-fin soup or fins of any kind. Will that actually changes the number of sharks caught worldwide? Probably not, because they get the sharks somewhere else. But it does send a very strong message and it creates an attempt that others can copy and follow. And it shows that it is possible, when for a long time people thought such a legislation is not possible and why should anyone even try? Our work just proves that it can be done. You do have to find the right people to involve, a Senator or representative who is willing to take that on. In our case we had Senator Hee, who had the backbone to take it on and to see it through to the very end.
M&C: You said the law is the simplest way to do it. What is so special about it?
SB: The key item that makes this law so genius is that it goes after the possession of fins. It is not a finning prohibition, it is the actual possession of fins. You simply cannot have them anymore. If you see a shark fin whether it is attached to a shark or it is dried, in a can or soup: It is illegal! Essentially it stops shark fishing! That means there are no exemptions. It makes enforcement very simple, very straight forward and across the board. The bill passed through the House of Representatives and the Senate. The only thing left is for the governor to sign. We don't have any reason to believe that she won't, but you never know. This bill creates a shark sanctuary the size of the whole State of Hawaii which is pretty big.
M&C: How would the shark bill affect on a bigger, lets say worldwide, scale?
SB: If this shark finning bill here in Hawaii passes into law, it has several implications. First of all it creates a shark fin free zone in the middle of the pacific. The more pockets of those zones we have the better it will be to enforce the actual laws. Secondly it shows that this tiny place in the pacific is able to do something. It also helps the legislation on a federal level. It has also given the whole ocean- and shark-conservation community a little bit of hope again. There have been some major setbacks in the last couple of years, proposals for legislation were just knocked down or have stalled in the process. There hasn't been a lot of support for ocean conservation on a large scale. To have this law in Hawaii come through gives everybody hope again that we actually can do something.
Another effect, that we didn't predict, was that the Chinese community has really seen that this is an issue that you can talk about. The former first lady here in Hawaii who is Chinese and very well respected, spoke out against shark fin soup. And she, as a Chinese person can make the claim that this is not chinese “culture” at all. It has allowed Chinese people all over the United States and maybe even in Hong Kong to say: "If she can do it, I can finally say it, too." Especially for younger people to start talking about shark finning with their parents and arguing that they actually don't want to have shark fin soup at their weddings. Groups in Hong Kong and in Malaysia already talk about rallying. They will take this law to their capitol building and will ask the authorities to follow this example. And those countries will be the most important ones, because they are the ones that consume shark-fin soup.
M&C: Why are you doing all this? You could just enjoy your life
and take it easy.
SB: I could take life easier. I could do the North Shore thing and go surfing. I don't know, I'm cursed with some sort of ambition and drive, that I'm here to do this because the opportunity has been given to me. I stumbled into this business first with the shark tours, out of an interest of diving. In the process I realized what a big impact it made. I couldn't ignore it and just couldn't pull back from the responsibility. This is what I am supposed to be doing and what better thing is there to do? I'm not a researcher and I'm not even a marine biologist, but I have self taught myself a lot in the last years. I believe if you want to, you can make a difference on so many different levels.I don't want to miss an opportunity to make a difference. I feel a great sense of accomplishment everytime I get something done. For me this is all just very satisfying. I don't think there is anything more worth doing than that.
M&C: Where do you get the strength from for doing all that?
SB: From power bars (laughs out loud). Honestly, the work is sometimes a lot of stress, a lot of worry and drama that I don't really need to have in my life. I don't question it, I just follow it and I just do what I feel is right. I try to see the big picture but I don't focus on what I might be doing years from now. Basically, I just try to take the opportunities as they come and affect something right now, right here. I try to be pro active and not dwell on the things that I cannot do! I focus on the next step at hand.
M&C: Do you think we have a choice as individuals to not make a difference?
SB: Everybody can do something. I strongly belief in that! It doesn't matter what your background is or your position is. Everybody can contribute in a small way. A little awareness in your everyday living goes a long ways. Even something that doesn't inconvenience you that much can make a huge difference. It adds on. Soon you will take another small step and another one and before you realize it you will have made a big change. I do belief it starts a chain reaction of good habits that you will pass on. I do belief we can’t afford to wait for the next generation to take care of our problems. We need to do it now. And there is nothing that keeps us from doing something immediately.
Individuals have a choice! Everybody can get involved. Get involved in politics. If you are living in a democratic country that is something you are actually supposed to be doing. You should at least have some interest in what is going on. Sometimes the small things become big things. Like that shark finning bill in Hawaii. I did not walk into the office thinking we were going to have a historic international bill that could possibly change the course of world wide shark finning. I just read the bill and thought: "Great idea! I’m gonna go down there and see how I can help. Maybe I can just handout flyers or write a testimony for a hearing." Than I got roped in all the way.
M&C: How did the work with sharks change and effect you?
SB: It has changed me a lot. Ten years ago I was all about traveling, experiencing the world, flying, diving and hiking. Now my focus has shifted and I'm more ambitious that the things that I do have a reason and follow a mission. My ambition is to spend my time in a meaningful way. That doesn't just mean my working hours, but my whole life basically. If I have free time, I spend it diving with sharks or talking to people about sharks and the ocean during conferences. The next few trips I'm taking are all about meeting with people of different organizations and brainstorming about ideas. So it has taken over my life completely. I'm aware of it and happy about it! It is great. It’s what I do now!
M&C: Do you have hope?
SB: I think hope is something you can never give up. It has taken me through some really tough times. I have never lost hope. You can always try to see something positive and see something you can do in the most desperate situation. I always give myself a few minutes of self-pity and desperation. But then you have to snap out of it and figure out what you can actually do about it.
M&C: How do you feel today?
SB: Incredibly good! I was able to finish this section, the process of the bill is out of my hands now. It was something that I was living and breathing for 24 hours a day for the last 4 months. Now I'm getting ready for a big trip to meet groups in California to pass on what happened here, Senator Hee is coming with me. He is interested in supporting this on a national and international level. This is picking up more and more momentum and there are more people joining the effort every day. We are on a wave of activity right now and if we keep it up we can make things happen quickly. There is lots of hope and teamwork, everybody is wanting to band together to make this happen. It's a very high feeling.
M&C: Is there anything else you want to say to our readers?
SB: Don't eat shark-fin soup! (laughs) The people who are reading this interview are probably already convinced that the ocean and the environment needs help. But I do hope that people in general would take a bigger interest in the ocean and be more aware of what is happening. We have to really take care of the ocean, not only the sharks, but the whales, the dolphins, everything. All the plastic garbage, we really need to take care of it on every level. Caring and involvement can happen in many ways, with your kids, in school, in your everyday life. It starts with what you put into your sink or what you flush down the toilet. Everything ends up in the ocean and, eventually will end up in our food. That is what I would like everybody to do, to think about the ocean, care about it, love it!
We met Stefanie at the end of May 2010 in Haleiwa, Oahu, Hawaii.
One week after the interview on May, 28th 2010, the bill was signed by the governor of the State of Hawaii and passed into legislation.